114 - Sarah Byers on Augustine's Ethics

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Peter speaks with Sarah Byers about the Stoic influence on Augustine's ethics and theory of action.



Further Reading

S. Byers, Perception, Sensibility, and Moral Motivation in Augustine (Cambridge: 2012).

• S. Byers, "The Psychology of Compassion: A Reading of City of God 9.5" in The Cambridge Critical Guide to the City of God (Cambridge: 2012).

• S. Byers, "Augustine and the Philosophers," Blackwell Companion to Augustine, ed. M. Vessey (London: 2012).

• S. Byers, “The Meaning of Voluntas in Augustine,” Augustinian Studies 37 (2006), 171-89.

• S. Byers, “Augustine and the Cognitive Cause of Stoic ‘Preliminary Passions’ (Propatheiai),” Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (2003), 433-48.


Peter Adamson on 31 January 2013


Just to say that if you notice a slight change in audio quality it is because this is for the first time recorded via Skype (Sarah was in Boston, I was in Munich). We think it sounds if not quite as good as the other interviews, then still pretty good - plus I really wanted to have her on the series! But I'd be grateful for any feedback on this aspect of the episode.

My current plan is to do further interviews via Skype occasionally, but I will do face-to-face recordings whenever possible.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Yannick Kilberger on 3 February 2013

Now the real question is why

Now the real question is why is this number 113 again? Is this like a 113 bis, maybe a lazy 114?

In reply to by Yannick Kilberger

Peter Adamson on 3 February 2013

113 vs 114

Oops, no -- that's because I can't count. Fixed it, thanks.

Vladimir Dorta on 3 February 2013

Sound quality

It sounds just as good as before, maybe better, but sound only comes from the right speaker.

In reply to by Vladimir Dorta

Peter Adamson on 3 February 2013

Sound quality

Great, thanks. I wonder if the right-left problem could be at your end? I just tried and on my earphones it is playing on both sides. Or is anyone else having this problem?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Yannick Kilberger on 3 February 2013

No sound problem for me both

No sound problem for me both with speaker or headphones.

Pete Bataleck on 4 February 2013

Fascinating conversation

Really enjoyed listening to it, lots to think about.

One complaint: it was too short!

In reply to by Pete Bataleck

Peter Adamson on 4 February 2013


Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it, I agree she was fascinating. By the way this is actually one of the longer episodes (in general the interviews run a bit longer but I try to keep them less than 30 minutes). So I'm glad you didn't think it was too long!


Robert on 12 September 2014

This interview is on fire!

Going through the series slowly. I've just made this quick account just to compliment on Sarah Byers outstanding rhetoric. So far in the series, this episode seems like the touchstone for the multiple person genre.

I'm really into how quickly and directly Sarah gets to her perspective. No "hmmmm", "ahh", or "...perhaps..." musings holding back the flow. Not only that, but she'll put out her opinion and then directly point to exact quotes and chapter for support. The decisive nature of her responses really grant an air of authority and passion for the subject.

In reply to by Robert

Peter Adamson on 13 September 2014

Byers interview

Yes, I agree that this one was really good. I will make sure she sees your comment!

In reply to by Robert

Pedro on 29 February 2016

Couldn't agree more

Hopefully, we'll hear her again on this podcast (though her work seems to focus a lot on Augustine).
You have to love the part when she replies "Yes, were we on a Hobbesian world...".

In reply to by Robert

Ben Embley on 2 June 2018

Absolutely agree!

Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. This interview is on fire. Who cares about slightly reduced audio quality or longer (mildly off-brand) run-time when the content is as clear, decisive, and thought-provoking as this? Wow.

Jean-François Virey on 20 January 2018

Vocal fry

The only audio complaint I have with this episode is that Sarah Byers' vocal fry is torture to my ears (admittedly a dispreferred indifferent.)

In reply to by Jean-François Virey

Peter Adamson on 20 January 2018

Vocal fry

You know this has been a huge matter of debate right, I mean, the gender politics of criticizing vocal fry (and upspeak)? See for instance this NPR story.

Alexander Johnson on 23 October 2018

Excellent Interview

I think this is the best interview I've listened to so far.  Dr Byers had an immediate mastery of the material and was excellent at translating that mastery into words.

In reply to by Alexander Johnson

Peter Adamson on 23 October 2018


Yes she was great! I'll make sure she gets the positive feedback.

Jorge on 28 January 2021

free choice and evil

Hi Peter,

I seem to be stuck here with two problems that I can't make sense of:

The first problem is if that if for Agustine Grace is necessary for not only the impression but also the assent to conversion to Christianity and Salvation, then how can one talk about it being a free choice? It seems like either God is taking the choice for us or that God's assistance is necessary for one to be able to make that choice. Either way, it seems that one is not free in making this most important of choices. If one could borrow (what I understand to be) a Stoic term, every other choice compared to the choice of conversion seems like a preferred indifferent, since as with virtue for the Stoics only Salvation would lead to true happiness. Even if we were to follow Plotinus's views on freedom would this also not be a free choice either, as we would not be the effective causes of it but rather God Himself?

If I am only responsible for what I do with my own will, how can I be responsible for this choice if it seems to be (at least if I understood Byers description right) such a heavily guided choice, if not completely made by God? Does this mean that the one choice on which my happiness is dependent (for this life and the one hereafter) is the one choice not made by me?

If instead, it is God's aid that is necessary to present this choice and allow the will to make this decision, this still means that one is not truly free without God's help. This seems like an attractive proposition at first, making Grace an act of merciful liberation. But then again, would this mean that there was no free choice (or at least one that mattered) for anyone living from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the sacrifice of Christ? And if people could not choose for Salvation then, how could they be held responsible for a choice they couldn't make? Does that mean free will is only reserved for choices that do not really matter in the grand scheme of things, making freedom of choice illusory or meaningless? Was Original Sin so pernicious because it was the last actual choice humanity had and it has been punished ever since, slaves to sin because of our literal incapacity for choosing Good?

I would find this to be either full of irony or contradictory to the biblical text since the inciting incident for this whole ordeal was eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, an event after which "knowledge" in stoic terms of episteme (if I understood it right) would be made impossible. Also, would that make both Adam and Eve stoic sages, yet ones that decided to stop having perfect knowledge?

And if Jesus, through His sacrifice restored to us this freedom, in terms of responsibility would it mean that only after Salvation we would be truly culpable of our choices if we were not to assent? Would this give more credence to the Donatist argument? And would Jesus's sacrifice become like a "but this time for real" fruit of knowledge unlike the falsely advertised one by the snake?

(long question and a lot of side questions I know)

The second thing I'm having trouble with (and this is a shorter one) is the metaphysical problem of evil in Augustine through the Platonist view of evil as non-being. In episode 90 you mentioned that for Plotinus "evils are then the holes in the swiss cheese of reality". With a God that is not a demiurge working with faulty materials but making everything ex-nihilo, how would these holes of absence and imperfections even happen? And since the Christian God as well as omnipotent and omniscient is also omnipresent, wouldn't the swiss cheese of reality have as many holes as if it was warmed up in a pot of fondue? Was omnipresence not yet part of Christian dogma and therefore not yet a problem?

Thank you, Peter.

I'm sorry if this is already addressed in an upcoming episode, or if I'm asking too many questions.






In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 28 January 2021


The questions you're posing there about Augustine's teaching on grace are the right ones to ask! As you'll see going through the rest of the podcast (and we'll get into more soon in the Reformation) this problem about reconciling the need for grace with free will was a long-running one in medieval and early modern philosophy. Various solutions were tried, e.g. that human will and God's gift of grace are jointly needed, or simply accepting determinism and holding that choice is compatible with that. Basically, stay tuned.

As far as evil goes, the point is precisely that God does not make evil, nothing makes evil because it is non-being or nothing and you can't make nothing. The fact that some things are subject to privation, lack, etc is simply because non-divine things are imperfect: God makes them and gives them the amount of goodness and being appropriate to them, but he doesn't have to give them (or create) evil or lack on top of that, any more than the cheesemaker has to make the holes. Notice this is really a problem about causation, not justifying why God would allow such privation or lack to occur; for that you need a different response.

George Henry Watson on 6 March 2023

Choosing to follow God's Will

God always offer his aid to us, but we are the one's who decline His offer. It may appear to us that God is not offering His Grace or that His Grace is ineffective, but it is only because we wish to believe that is the case. In our sinfulness we blame God, instead of ourselves.


We use human moral logic to say we cannot be blamed because God has not forced us to be Good and since we can only become Better through God forcing His Grace upon us, there is no one to blame for our damnation save the Creator. 


And so we continue on in our sins saying to ourselves:


I cannot fathom how I can change my evil ways unless God forces me to change my evil ways, and since I am apparently bound to my sinfulness, God has not sent His grace.


Rather, God Grace is within our souls in all its beneficences but we have to let Grace transform us instead of resisting its entreaties and healing balms.


You cannot will to be good, in and of itself through only your own powers as you do not know what is Good and even if you did, you would not appreciate it, for your moral desires are turned in upon yourself to seek your self and only your self. 


God only asks that you choose to listen to the  soothing words of the Holy Spirit which speaks to you every moment of your life.


That you seek to use vain human logic in an egotistical manner, only demonstrates that you are refusing to listen to the Holy Spirit and are freely obsessed with yourself and nothing else.



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